Video: As Kim Jong Il dies, what’s next for North Korea?

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    >>> good evening. it's more than just the death of a dictator. kim jong -il of north korea is gone. we believe his son is taking over , but it's the fact that for example we don't really know for sure how old his son is or who is running a big dangerous nuclear-armed and isolated country that has ushered in a new period of uncertainty. some background here briefly beforehand. there are 24 million people in north korea , most of them very poor. it is believed malnutrition affects one in three children. it is further believed a famine a few years back killed a million people. the north korea military is the world's fifth largest. of course we fought a war over korea and have well over 20,000 troops there. they are now believed to be in possession of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons by the ton. it's against that backdrop that we are not just covering the death of an aging and sick dictator. we now look at what happens next as well. we begin tonight with our chief foreign affairs correspondent andrea mitchell . andrea, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening. the sudden death of kim jong -il known to his people as dear leader creates hunl uncertainties. for now pyongyang's residents don't know who will be in charge of the nuclear weapons . on state tv, images of sobbing north koreans in declining health since a stroke in 2008 north korea said kim died suddenly of a heart attack two days after this picture was taken. emotions seemed to grip the anchor on state television who broke the news. named as his successor kim 's untested youngest son kim jong -un. president obama made a midnight call to reassure south korea 's president. the u.s. with more than 28,000 troops on the peninsula will stand with the south.

    >> we reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of north korea and remain deeply concerned about their well-being.

    >> reporter: kim jong -il's reign of terror lasted 17 years. menacing his neighbors with nuclear weapons , holding his own people hostage with prison camps and starvation. two years ago it took a former president to free two american journalists who strayed across the border from china. kim did not look the part. so short he wore elevated heels, adding inches more with bouffant hair, favoring olive drab jumpsuits and oversized sunglasses. drinking cognac and fine wine while millions of his people starved. kim traveled with a harem of women some called his joy brigade in a luxurious railroad car . he collected hollywood films and videos of the chicago bulls . when secretary of state madeline albright visited in 2007 she discussed normalizing relations with the u.s. she gave him a basketball signed by michael jordan . kim staged a military pageant for her benefit. she said she had no illusions.

    >> i can assure you these glasses i have on are not rose-colored.

    >> reporter: kim had years to emulate the cult of personality created by his father, the nation's founder, kim il -sung. now his youngest son takes over. does he have the skill to control the military or will he be a figurehead? almost nothing is known about him. he's believed to be 28 years old, was educated briefly in switzerland. unlike his father has had little time to prepare for his new role.

    >> one of the big questions as we look down the road is whether this is going to be a successful leadership transition or whether the regime will simply not be able to hold it together.

    >> reporter: this is a regime that has confounded generations of american leaders. while u.s. intelligence repeatedly fails to anticipate north korea 's nuclear progress and its missile test.

    >> they are going to send signals that they are tough and don't mess with us. so i think i would expect some more. hopefully they are not going to do it in a way that provokes south korea to respond in kind.

    >> reporter: kim 's death comes on the very day that u.s. diplomats in china were to meet with north korean counterparts on a new food aid for disargumentment agreement that is now on permanent hold.

    >> what do you look for anywhere from 24 hours to two weeks?

    >> reporter: or even longer. the real worry is loose nukes. just who's in charge of those weapons? and the fear of provocative military action by a young leader trying to prove himself or the military trying to show its muscle. and the u.s. is urging south korea , of course, to remain calm but there is no love lost for the so-called dear leader . tonight john mccain said, i can only express satisfaction, quote, that the dear leader is joining the likes of gadhafi, bin laden , hitler and stalin in a warm corner of hell.

    >> a lot of people are making fun of the pictures of mourners because some of them look aware of the camera and perhaps coerced to some eyes.

    >> reporter: exactly.

    >> andrea mitchell in our washington bureau starting us off tonight.

By
msnbc.com
updated 12/19/2011 7:13:32 PM ET 2011-12-20T00:13:32
analysis

Analysts were optimistic yet cautious Monday over the future of North Korea and its relations with the outside world following the death of Kim Jong Il .

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The transfer of power to his young and untested son Kim Jong Un could allow Pyongyang the chance to renew relations with its neighbors but comes as Western countries concentrate on the Middle East and economic difficulties.

Experts said it was unlikely the U.S. or any other country would use the succession to put pressure on North Korea's brutal regime — a move that could backfire.

"We're not going to see an expeditionary force sailing in to liberate North Korea next week," said Dr Jim Hoare, a British former diplomat who served in the country, told msnbc.com.

Video: North Korea’s Kim Jong Il dies at 69 (on this page)

The timing of the succession is also awkward for both Pyongyang and the outside world.

It could affect the outcome of elections due next year in South Korea. The country immediately put its military personnel on high alert.

It also comes as the Obama administration was already debating whether to go ahead with a new round of nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea and whether to provide food aid to the country, which has been struggling with crippling food shortages.

The administration had been poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, according to sources close to the negotiations. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program was expected to follow within days, sources told Reuters.

'Highly unusual'
Dr John Swenson-Wright, associate fellow of the Asia program at London-based think tank Chatham House, said the change presented "both opportunities and potential hazards."

"It comes at a particularly bad time," he told msnbc.com. "In North Korea, it will overshadow preparations for the spring celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung. In South Korea there are elections and for the United States, President Obama is also in an election year with a difficult economy and quite pressing international concerns elsewhere.

"In a Confucian society, a transition to the youngest son is highly unusual. We don't fully know the reasons behind it — was it down to the inadequacies of the older brothers, or some other reason? That is another unresolved question," he added.

Hoare said Kim Jong Il's eldest son had fallen out of favor after being caught trying to go to Disneyland in Japan on a forged diplomatic passport, while his other son "has been described as a little girl, which could mean he was effeminate or it could just be a turn of phrase".

It is not clear how tightly Kim Jong Un will be able control his own country's fearsome military hierarchy, particularly since he appears to have little experience except a role on the country's National Defense Commission.

"The most likely scenario for regime collapse has been the sudden death of Kim (Jong Il). We are now in that scenario," Victor Cha, a former U.S. National Security Council director for Asian affairs, told The Associated Press.

Dr Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst for the RAND Corporation, said there had been reports of attempts to kill Kim Jon Il shortly he took over in 1994.

"Bear in mind Kim Jong Il had three decades to prepare for power through purges that built up his personal support before that succession," he said. "Kim Jong Un has had only about 15 months.

"We didn't even have a photograph of him until recently, and his only widely known action achievement was a disastrous currency devaluation about two years ago," he added.

Video: Power struggle between party, military in store for North Korea? (on this page)

However, Swenson-Wright said internal instability or a coup appeared unlikely.

"It is quite possible Kim Jong Un's uncle [Jang Song Thaek] will step up to provide guidance, in a sort of regency period until Kim Jong Un grew into the role. I think any talk of an internal coup is highly fanciful," he said.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested the succession "could be a turning point for North Korea", while Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said it was "one of those critical junctures" and "an exceptionally difficult period of transition."

"It is critical that everybody exercises appropriate calm and restraint in what is a important development in terms of the overall stability of the region and the security of us all," Rudd added.

China is also expected to take a strong behind-the-scenes role to help retain its influence, which is seen as important no matter which direction North Korea takes.

"If North Korea continues to be an international pariah, China will continue to benefit from its current leverage," U.S. Naval Academy China scholar Yu Maochun told Reuters.

Video: Haass: Kim Jong Il was 'tactically brilliant' (on this page)

"If North Korea becomes less intransigent and slightly more open, then China will be greatly worried about the possible warming-up, or even reunification, between North and South Koreas."

There are some signs the regime's control on communications may be slipping. Cell phones are now increasingly commonplace among Pyongyang residents, and not just among the regime elite, Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which operates trips to North Korea, told Reuters.

In the last couple of years, mobile phone use has "just exploded," he said, with people often using mid-range, China-made handsets to trade SMS messages, play games and browse weather reports.

Hoare added that "once you start making reforms, it is hard to stop."

"They may be cautious about opening up any further until the leadership issue is stabilized," he said.

Slideshow: Daily life in North Korea (on this page)

"It is wrong to call North Korea a hermit country. The leadership and the elites in Pyongyang do hear what happens elsewhere — albeit a bit later than the rest of the world. When I was last there it was at the time [Moammar] Gadhafi was captured and there was a great deal of interest in that and what it might mean," Hoare said.

Some Western politicians suggested they were waiting to see what comes next.

"The death of a dictator is always a period of uncertainty for a dictatorship," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter. "And North Korea is the hardest dictatorship in our time."

Follow Alastair Jamieson on Twitter at @alastairjam

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Kim Jong Il through the years

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  1. Happy family

    Kim Jong Il as a child with his father Kim Il Sung and first wife Kim Jong Suk. (Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Young student

    A1963 photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong Il when he was a student of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. With his friends

    Kim Jong Il, second person from right, takes part of a souvenir picture with his friends in this undated photo. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Official business

    In his young days working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Training exercise

    Kim Jong Il leads the firearms training of the February 2nd National Sport Defense team members while he was working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Meeting with farmers

    Kim Jong Il talks with farmers when he was in the Central Committee, May 21, 1971. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Test drive

    Kim Jong Il takes a test drive of a play equipment combat plane in Taesong amusement park, Pyongyang in North Korea,Oct. 2, 1977. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Filmmaking

    Kim Jong Il gives advice at the shooting of "An Jung Geun Avenges Hirobumi Ito," a narrative film. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Father and son

    Kim Jong Il was anointed successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1980. Known as the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung and his son are shown attending a Korean Worker's Party convention in October of that year. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Family portrait

    Kim Jong Il, bottom left, poses memebers of his family in this 1981 photo in Pyongyang, North Korea. Sitting at right is his son, Jong-Nam, Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang stands at top left with her daughter Lee Nam-Ok, center and son Lee Il-Nam, top right. While virtually nothing is known about the leader's personal life, an attempt by his first-born son Kim Jong Nam, bottom right, to enter Japan on a false passport in May, 2001, briefly shone a light onto his family's private dealings. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Applause please

    Kim Jong Il meets with Korean People's Army personnel in this Sept., 1988, photo. North Korea is believed to be the most heavily militarized country in the world on a per capita basis. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Like father, like son

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stands next to his father, Kim Il Sung, inspecting a football field in Pyongyang. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Silent famine

    Residents of Taziri, North Korea, wait for Red Cross food supplies in December 1995, not long after the death of Kim Il Sung left Kim Jong Il in control of the country. At the time, around 130,000 North Koreans were reportedly on the brink of famine and 500,000 were homeless. (Calvi Parisetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kim looking at things

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspects cucumbers harvested inside the 770th army base near Nyon Won power plant in Pyonan-Namdo. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frenemies?

    South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, right, hugs North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of their summit meeting at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. The two leaders held historic talks for three days in June 2000. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A visitor from Russia

    Kim Jong Il walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, as he arrived in Pyongyang in July 2000 for talks on halting North Korea's missile-development program. (Itar-tass / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Toasting the U.S.

    Kim Jong Il toasts U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang in October 2000. The visit was part of an coordinated effort by Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan to end the country's isolation. (Chien-min Chung / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A giant leader

    A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il displayed at an entrance of the foreign ministry in Pyongyang August 2002. (Shingo Ito / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Welcoming Japan

    Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, shakes hands with Kim Jong Il after signing a joint statement at the end of a one-day summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002. North Korea admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s and using them to train spies. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crowds in the square

    In January 2003, more than one million people gathered on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to hear political leaders hail North Korea's dramatic decision to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tearful goodbyes

    Emotional South Koreans bid farewell to their North Korean families following a brief reunion in July 2004. The families were separated by the border that was imposed after fighting ended in 1953. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. X marks the spot

    A South Korean protester holds a picture of Kim Jong Il marked with a cross during a rally in Seoul on July 7, 2006. Demonstrators denounced Pyongyang's test-firing of seven missiles. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wining and dining

    South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun joins Kim Jong Il at a farewell lunch in Pyongyang on Oct. 4, 2007, after the two sides signed a pledge to seek a peace treaty to replace the 54-year-old cease-fire that ended the Korean War. With no treaty in place, the two countries technically are still at war. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Military matters

    Kim Jong Il visits a military unit in this picture released by North Korea's official news agency on Aug. 11, 2008. It was Kim's last public appearance before intelligence officials suggested he had fallen gravely ill. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. In the public eye again

    In this image taken from North Korea's KRT state television, Kim Jong II attends the first session of the Supreme People's Assembly on April 9, 2009, in Pyongyang. It was his first major public appearance since reportedly suffering a stroke in August 2008. (APTN) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Paying his respects

    A gaunt-looking Kim Jong Il, sitting center in the front row, is surrounded by high-ranking officials during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of his father's death on July 8, 2009. Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea, remains known as the country's"eternal president." (KCNA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Visit from Clinton

    Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, meets with Kim Jong Il, left front, in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, 2009. North Korea pardoned and released two detained U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, after the meeting. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Calling on a cotton farm

    Kim Jong Il inspects a cotton plant farm of the Korean People's Army's 1596 unit on Nov. 29, 2009. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Meet-and-greet

    Kim Jong Il waves as people including soldiers applaud during a visit to the construction site of the Kumyagang Army-People Power Station in South Hamgyong Province in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency in August, 2010. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. China visit

    Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with Kim Jong Il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, on Aug. 27, 2010. (Ju Peng / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Likely heir

    North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, seated at center in sunglasses, and his youngest son Kim Jong Un, seated at left, pose for a photo with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the participants in the WPK Conference, at the plaza of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency on Sept. 30, 2010. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son as successor this week, promoting him to senior political and military positions. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (2nd L) and his youngest son Kim Jong Un (3rd R from Kim Jong-il) visit the cemetery for Chinese soldiers who died during the 1950-53 Korean War in Hoechang County, North Korea, Oct. 26, 2010, in this picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un attend a massive military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the communist nation's ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 10, 2010. Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic leader whose iron rule and nuclear ambitions dominated world security fears for more than a decade, has died. He was 69. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Pass in review

    Kim Jong Il attends a military parade to celebrate the 63rd founding anniversary of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pyongyang on September 9, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A tearful announcer dressed in black announces the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong il on North Korean State Television on Dec. 19, 2011. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died on a train trip, state television reported on Monday, sparking immediate concern over who is in control of the reclusive state and its nuclear program. The announcer said the 69-year old had died on Saturday of physical and mental over-work on his way to give "field guidance". (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seen inside a glass coffin as people pay their respects, Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 20, 2011. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. ARCHIVES : KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL
    Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma
    Above: Slideshow (36) The life of Kim Jong ll - Kim Jong Il through the years
  2. Image:
    KCNA via AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (42) The life of Kim Jong ll - World reacts
  3. Daryl Cagle / MSNBC.com, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (30) The life and death of Kim Jong Il
  4. Image:
    David Guttenfelder / AP
    Slideshow (53) Journey into North Korea
  5. Elizabeth Dalziel / AP
    Slideshow (7) Daily life in North Korea

Interactive: Meet North Korea’s first family

The North Korean dictatorship established by Kim Il Sung after World War II was taken over by his son Kim Jong Il in the 1990s. Now, as Kim Jong Il’s health fails the power is apparently being formally handed to his eldest son Kim Jung Un. In addition, the Kim family holds dozens of powerful positions throughout the North Korean bureaucracy.

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